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Featured Poem: Duty Surviving Self-Love by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 10th January 2011

While there is still a sense of newness (as strange as it sounds, it is in fact a word) and a certain vitality in the frosty January air, it seems rather appropriate to consider the subject of ‘change’. It’s fair to say that we approach and adapt to change in different ways. The hardier and more adventurous amongst us embrace it, actively seek it out, take to it like the proverbial duck to water. For others, it’s not quite so easy. The apparently smallest of changes, such as being required to take a different route to work or choosing another sandwich at lunch because your favourite has sold out, is enough to make the mouth dry and head spin. Introduce anything more significant and they’re likely to have run for the hills in search of a bit of reliable routine. Yet whatever your stance is, it remains a fact that change is inevitable.

Change may be either exhilarating or unsettling enough when it happens to us but can be a different thing altogether when it occurs to someone else. First reactions to news of a friend or family member’s life-altering event are filled with smiles, hugs and congratulations. But, even though it is rather shameful to admit, feelings towards others’ change can change themselves quite dramatically. Excitement and happiness can be replaced by uncertainty and concern. Most often, change happening to other people leads to an almost over-emphasised focus on how much – or little – you are changing yourself. Are you changing enough in line with everyone else, do you need to make a change somewhere before you get left change for the sake of change really necessary? It’s all quite dizzying and even disheartening.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an interesting take on the matter of change - significantly, people changing all around while you stay exactly the same - in this poem, written in 1826. I find this poem particularly challenging as going through it line by line I’m in a constant state of changing opinion, in agreement and then at loggerheads with what Coleridge is saying. That in itself seems rather appropriate. I can identify with the despondent situation and the self doubt of the opening lines, as well as conceding that is unwise and ineffectual to measure yourself too often with ‘others’ wanings’. I’m also nodding my head firmly at the closing lines, which say we shouldn’t change our feelings towards those closest to us simply because they have altered themselves in some way. Yet I’m not too sure that the yearning to change in an aspect that others have should be always classified as ‘feeble’ or that peering out from the vantage point of ‘thy safe recess’ is always wise. That’s before I’ve even considered fully what the puzzling title could mean. It’s still good to consider however – as is the mere concept of making a change, regardless of whether it’s undertaken at the beginning, middle or end of a year.

Duty Surviving Self-Love

Unchanged within, to see all changed without,
Is a blank lot and hard to bear, no doubt.
Yet why at others' wanings should'st thou fret?
Then only might'st thou feel a just regret,
Hadst thou withheld thy love or hid thy light
In selfish forethought of neglect and slight.
O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed,
While, and on whom, thou may'st -- shine on! nor heed
Whether the object by reflected light
Return thy radiance or absorb it quite:
And though thou notest from thy safe recess
Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are; nor love them less,
Because to thee they are not what they were.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Duty Surviving Self-Love by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

louise says:

The mere word CHANGE used to send me quite hysterical ,thinking keep everything the same so less chance of any calamity LOUISE coming alive although have over the last few years become ever so slightly calmer as sometimes change c an be a good thing if you really desire it and not done to quickly !
In life you actually come across a true friend very rarely, and remember when my best friend since the age of 2 told me she was getting married and I somehow managed to mutter “CONGRATULATIONS and that calls a day on our friendship BUT It hasn’t our situation may have changed but we are still the same people and she has since told me that when meeting for the first time and approving , she doubts the wedding would have gone ahead!!!!!!(neither of us read Mills and Boon)
So I have concluded that change on the whole is good but saying that got quite upset and horrified when they have moved the bus stop without telling me and screaming ” I cant get over the river but hey ! I got over the water went and read some hardy and all is well til tomorrow and wondering what changes that will bring!!!

[…] return I will, for the sake of maintaining a rather neat flow of poetic theme. You’ll recall that last week’s Featured Poem mentioned in its title the notion of self-love. Though Coleridge did not tackle the idea directly […]

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